September 9, 2013

As a recent member of the conga line of guest hosts for CNN’s media-analysis show “Reliable Sources,” I took interest in the Sunday debut of ex-host Howard Kurtz’s new Fox News program “Media Buzz.”

Airing at the same time as “Reliable Sources,” Kurtz’s show offered the same kind of media discussions as the CNN show he hosted for 15 years, presenting a chance for anyone with a DVR or twitchy TV remote finger to get two different visions of the week’s media news in one hour.

Kurtz’s inaugural show offered a fast-paced, technology-tinged overview of media stories that felt like a, well, buzzier version of the slightly more contemplative — OK, wonkier — edition of “Reliable Sources” guest-hosted by another former CNN staffer, Frank Sesno.

“We are going to hold the media accountable in a fair, aggressive and unbiased way,” said Kurtz, offering a mission statement of sorts at the show’s start. “We won’t be shy about calling out people for mistakes, conflicts, sensationalism or acknowledging our own errors when they happen.”

(Kurtz got a chance to live up to that manifesto later in the show, when he corrected a panelist who suggested New York Times investigative reporter Judith Miller lost her job for discredited reporting in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. He noted she resigned from the paper a few years later and is now a Fox News analyst.)

With longtime on-air partner Lauren Ashburn at his right hand, Kurtz launched into a discussion of President Obama’s attempt to win congressional approval for military action in Syria, using the president’s scheduled interviews with six network-news anchors today and an address to the American people Tuesday as the media angle. Other segments touched on the media fascination with floundering New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner; a visit by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to the newspaper he just bought, The Washington Post; and questions of sexism in media reporting about Yahoo president and CEO Marissa Mayer.

In guest-hosting “Reliable Sources” on Aug. 25, I found a striking amount of the show’s direction depends on who you can get in front of the cameras. Getting the journalists at the heart of big stories in the show — along with less-familiar sources who can talk about media well — can be the difference between a flat segment and one that shines.

To that end, Kurtz welcomed a roster of panelists familiar to regular “Reliable Sources” viewers, including Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik, Washington Post reporter Nia-Malika Henderson and Ashburn. (Full disclosure: I was a frequent guest on Kurtz’s CNN show, but haven’t spoken to him about his new program.)

The biggest difference between “Media Buzz” and “Reliable Sources” however, was the new venture’s Fox-style production values. Instead of the relaxed piano tones introducing “Reliable Sources,” Fox viewers got electric guitars — as well as bright flashing graphics, names for segments such as “Spin Cycle” and “Buzz Alert,” lots of encouragement to engage online and a perkier host, seemingly invigorated after weeks away from regular hosting duties.

You could nitpick about some choices — one of the show’s longer segments centered on why media outlets were spending so much time talking about Weiner’s long-shot mayoral campaign, embodying the very dynamic being critiqued. And the segment on coverage of Mayer alluded to sexism in media coverage but only specifically detailed a piece both Ashburn and Kurtz said was well done: a 20,000-word story by Business Insider.

Kurtz left CNN less than two months after he submitted to a 15-minute segment on “Reliable Sources” in which two other media critics asked him about mistakes he made in a piece for the Daily Beast (he said back then the timing of his departure was not connected to that incident).

But in a move that mirrored similar hires of former NPR news analyst Juan Williams and former MSNBC morning personality Don Imus, Fox News picked up Kurtz to take over its media-analysis show “Fox News Watch,” moving the program from Saturdays into direct competition with “Reliable Sources” on Sunday morning.

At CNN, Sesno touched on similar subjects as Kurtz’s show, kicking off with a discussion of Syria that included an interview with CNN correspondent Arwa Damon; Shibley Telhami, an expert on Middle Eastern politics from the University of Maryland; and Len Downie, the former executive editor of The Washington Post.

Sesno, now leading the school of media and public affairs at George Washington University, came across as a bit less urgent than Kurtz, quizzing CNN correspondent Peter Hamby on whether Twitter is killing campaign journalism (short answer: yes) and getting a first-hand report from Downie on Bezos’ visit to the Post. (Downie said the new owner liked investigative journalism, loved the printed newspaper and talked a lot about the possibilities of tablet computers.)

With a succession of guest hosts filling in for Kurtz, it’s tough to know how “Reliable Sources” may stack up against “Media Buzz” in weeks to come.

But Sunday’s episodes offered two different flavors of the same ice cream cone — a welcome diversity of approaches in a medium that often doesn’t even like to acknowledge the media competition, much less spend an entire hour dissecting it for viewers.

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